There is an old Irish tradition of leaving a lighted candle in the window of your house on Christmas Eve to show that the Holy Family is welcome at your home.
The tradition of hospitality that such candles represented is becoming a thing of the past in the new Ireland. Sometimes, one needs to travel out of Dublin to remember such traditions.
I remember getting a phone call during the summer of last year from from someone I hadn’t seen for at least eight years, a man who had lived in one of the country parishes where I had been Rector. They were never really parishioners, but his wife had suffered a massive stroke in 1991 and I had got to know them through visiting her week by week during her long months in hospital. The lady had died and the man wanted to know if I would come and take her funeral in Belfast crematorium. They had moved to another county and had no connection with any church and didn’t know any other clergy.
I could hardly refuse, and left at 7.00, getting to the crematorium in Belfast at 10.00, in good time for the service at 11.00. Plenty of time to go to the crematorium coffee shop and read my ‘Irish Times’, I thought. It was then I realised that I had no Sterling cash. I went to the coffee shop and asked if I could pay with my Sterling Debit Card. The woman in the shop said she couldn’t take plastic, but what was it I wanted. ‘A cup of tea’, I said, ‘but I have no way of paying for it’. This was no problem to her, I could have it for nothing, did I want something to eat? I didn’t want to push my luck, being more than happy with my pot of tea.
After the service the man whose wife had died asked me if I would join him and his family for lunch. I said that I really wanted to be back in Dublin before four o’clock. At which point a lady from Downpatrick said I should at least join her in the coffee shop for a cup of tea, again I said I had no money. Again this wasn’t a problem – she bought tea and scones and pancakes.
The North may have many problems, but welcome and hospitality for strangers is not one of them. At home in England such a response would have been unthinkable, the best response there would have been a suggestion as to where the nearest cashtill might be in order that I could pay for my purchases. Nor, I suspect, are there many places in Dublin where you would meet such hospitality.
Yet hospitality is assumed to be at the heart of being a Christian. When Jesus is trying to teach his followers about God, he uses examples of generous human hospitality.
When we use the word ‘hospitality’, it has lost the strength it had in times past. For us hospitality has come to mean welcoming friends at our own convenience. In Jesus’ time it was altogether more demanding, it meant putting yourself out for others, without hesitation offering a welcome to those who came to the door.
Jesus uses the example of hospitality because it is very simple and easily understood. It’s something that demands direct personal involvement, it asks much more of us than attending worship, or putting money in a basket or giving to charity, it asks that we get involved with people who are strangers, with people who are not like us, with people whom we might not even like. It demands personal sacrifice and making sacrifices is not something that most of us want to do. We live lives in a society that tells us that we should be centred on ourselves. What we are told by the media and by the advertisers and the by so-called lifestyle experts is that what matters is what we want and that we shouldn’t do anything that doesn’t make us feel good.
Welcoming strangers is not convenient, it would not make us feel good about ourselves, should the Holy Family pass our door, I wonder if they would feel welcome.